With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing their hands in several developments to conduct their new season, the NHL is about to embark on a rather unique journey. Be it with divisional realignment or the new playoff format — at least for one season — the league will look significantly different than in years past.
The Boston Bruins will find that out quickly in the NHL’s East Division. They’ll face the Sabres, Devils, Rangers, Islanders, Flyers, Penguins and Capitals eight times each in 2021.
They won’t face teams from other divisions unless they reach the Stanley Cup semifinals at the earliest. So no meetings –for now — with familiar Atlantic Division rivals like Maple Leafs, Canadiens and Lightning to name a few.
Things won’t be all unfamiliar with the Bruins in their new division. The Sabres come along as a fellow Atlantic foe and previous matchups with each of the East Division squads provided plenty of entertaining hockey.
With this year’s schedule, it won’t take long for the Bruins to get familiar with their re-aligned divisional opponents.
“Yeah, I don’t think it will take long to get those rivalries built up,” Bruins’ President Cam Neely said during Monday’s Zoom call. “Obviously there’s history between Boston and the Rangers for years. When they play here, we play there, there’s a lot of fans of both teams. I think the recent history we’ve had with Philly in the playoffs, that will spark some rivalry…Playing these teams that many times guys will be sick of each other in a hurry.”
Neely and company will have their work cut out for them. Six of the eight teams in the re-aligned East Division partook in the postseason bubble up in Toronto a few months prior.
It’s not all bad news for the Bruins in their temporary division. Here are a few things to watch in the new-look East Division.
The Rangers, Flyers and Islanders crashing the party
Aside from the Lightning and Maple Leafs, the Bruins didn’t have much to worry about falling too far behind in the Atlantic. They had the luxury of facing three of the league’s bottom-feeders last season in the Sabres, Red Wings and Senators along with middling franchises like the Habs and Panthers.
Boston has itself some stiff competition this time around. They still find themselves as divisional favorites — 5:2 odds according to BetOnline.ag — in arguably the toughest re-aligned division.
Just look at how these teams fared last season. Barry Trotz’s Islanders made it to the Conference Finals. The Flyers, behind young netminder Carter Hart and 2020 Selke Award winner Sean Couturier, made a surprising run toward the top of the Metropolitan Division. The Rangers, with potential Hart Trophy candidate Artemi Panarin, added another young dynamo with top overall pick Alexis Lafreniere.
The Isles, Flyers and Rangers all have a bright future. These teams may very well take the mantle from the Penguins and Capitals whenever they resume playing in the Metro.
The Cup window for the Penguins, Capitals and Bruins
The Bruins historically haven’t fared well against the Capitals during Alex Ovechkin’s tenure. At least this year they won’t have to deal with Braden Holtby, who signed with the Canucks in the off-season. They had better fortunes against the Penguins and their dynamic duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin over the last 15 years.
Yet, the B’s, Caps and Pens have something in common. All three teams have a shortened window to win another Stanley Cup with their core intact.
This isn’t to say that notable over-30 stars like Crosby, Ovechkin, Malkin, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand — to name a few — are heading toward decline. They may be closer to the end of their prime years, but their production should provide short-term benefits to their respective squads.
Yet, all three have some question marks. Can the Penguins, who have the least amount of future cap space among the three squads, find another consistent offensive threat to compliment Malkin and Crosby? Will the Capitals, with Ovechkin in the final year of his contract, develop consistency on both ends of the ice? Can the Bruins make up for Torey Krug’s production on the back end and find a winger to skate with Jake DeBrusk and David Krejci?
We’ll figure out some of the answers to these questions down the road as the Bruins, Capitals and Penguins battle to stave off the young and up and coming squads. But at least every team in the division won’t have an uphill climb against the reigning Stanley Cup champs.
Avoiding the Lightning, for now
They don’t have any salary-cap flexibility. But make no mistake, the Tampa Bay Lightning remain the odds on favorite to win their second straight Cup.
Yes, the Bolts have to offload some money to get under the salary cap. And yes, they’ve lost one key member from last year’s squad with Kevin Shattenkirk inking a three-year deal in Anaheim.
But Tampa has a plethora of talent, even with Nikita Kucherov’s reported hip injury. Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevisky are all favorites to obtain individual hardware yearly. Couple that with a fine supporting cast — mainly Yanni Gourde, Mikhail Sergachev, Ryan McDonagh and Alex Killorn (to name a few) — and you have yourself a formula for another title run.
It will feel strange not seeing the Bruins and Bolts face off four times a season. They could renew acquaintances this summer, but at least Bruce Cassidy and company can establish some building blocks before any potential postseason matchup.
Tim Rosenthal serves as the Managing Editor of Bruins Daily. He started contributing videos to the site in 2010 before fully coming on board during the Bruins' Stanley Cup run in 2011. His bylines over the last decade have been featured on Boston.com, FoxSports.com, College Hockey News, Patch and Inside Hockey. You can follow Tim on Twitter @_TimRosenthal.
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